By: Matt Surman, Associated Press Writer
(AP) German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s decision not to talk to the country’s top-selling daily newspaper has fueled a press revolt, a major reversal for a leader who reportedly once said that the newspaper and television were just about all he needed to govern.
Schroeder’s retribution for the Bild newspaper’s allegedly unfair reporting has united influential media against him with demands he treat the paper fairly. On Wednesday, a group representing the national press corps in the capital protested.
The spat comes at an already difficult time for Schroeder, whose popularity has slumped since his re-election 18 months ago as he attempts to sell Germans on cuts in social programs.
Schroeder spokesman Bela Anda, himself a former Bild reporter and author of a sympathetic Schroeder biography, said last week that the chancellor would no longer talk to the paper because of its “mixture of malice, rabble-rousing, disdain for its subjects, and half-truths.”
That contrasts with Schroeder’s early days, when his stylish, media-savvy presence provided a counterpoint to 16 years of the staid and steady Helmut Kohl.
When he came into office in 1998, Schroeder actively courted certain journalists and was reported as saying he wanted to govern through television as well as Bild — known for its bright colors, screaming headlines and influence among Germany’s blue-collar voters — and the paper’s Bild am Sonntag Sunday edition. Schroeder has been less critical of the more feature-heavy Sunday edition.
Schroeder has a record of suing newspapers for coverage he deemed unfair — once for reporting rumors of marital troubles, and once in a successful attempt to quash suggestions that he dyes his hair, a contention that gave fodder to political foes eager to portray Schroeder as more style than substance.
His image has been battered by stubbornly high unemployment, a weak economy and fears that Germany is losing its international stature.
“He’s fighting the system that made him great,” the Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper commented this week.
Schroeder’s move prompted a letter from editors of several major newspapers last week accusing the government of “putting the freedom of the press in question.”
“We’d never had that before in Germany,” Wolfgang Stock, the head of the German media think tank Media Tenor told the Associated Press. But, he said, “the teenage love has been disappointed.”
In fact, Stock said his analysis shows that other media criticize Schroeder far more than Bild does. But he may be calculating that shutting out the most aggressive of the popular press won’t harm him with voters, Stock said.
Echoing the tenor of editorials from across the political spectrum in recent days, Stock said the move comes across as an act of desperation for a leader whose approval rating has fallen drastically.
“Of course he has to talk to them,” he said. “It’s crazy.”
Representatives of the national press corps in Berlin said Wednesday they met Anda to “vehemently protest” the decision denying Bild interviews. The group said it also raised allegations that Schroeder’s press office explicitly barred Bild reporters from his international trips.
Government spokesman Thomas Steg retorted that if some reporters have to stay home, it’s only because there isn’t enough space on the chancellor’s plane.
“No one is disinvited,” he said.
But, he added, Schroeder won’t start talking to Bild again. “It’s beyond debate that he can decide whom he wants to talk to and whom he doesn’t,” Steg said.
Interview freezes are not entirely new in Germany. Kohl refused to give interviews for years to the Der Spiegel newsmagazine because he said it distorted coverage of him. Unlike Schroeder, he kept his dislike more discreet.